By now many of us are well aware of the importance of the good bacteria living in our gut and the ways in which our diet affects them. But new research suggests that our activity levels can also have a big impact on our gut microbiome, and that simply walking a few times a week can lead to gut-pleasing changes.
Our gut microbiome consists of trillions of microbes that live within the intestines. Experts agree that the more diverse the microbes taking up residence in your intestines, the better for your health. Your immune system, digestive system, heart and brain are all seemingly affected by the diversity of your gut microbiome.
Up until now we’ve heard a lot about the ways in which food can both positively and negatively affect our gut health, with probiotics and fermented foods all enriching the gut microbiome and junk food and alcohol causing an unhealthy microbe imbalance. Yet the latest research is suggesting that our levels of activity can also affect our gut microbiome, again both for the better and the worse. The great news is that you don’t need to be doing anything strenuous to gain these benefits; you can get them simply by walking a bit more.
A 2017 study from the University of Illinois found that when a group of previously sedentary women added three bouts of 30-60 minutes of cardio exercise to their weekly routines for six weeks, the diversity of microbes in their gut greatly increased. The six-week period in which the women exercised was followed by another six-week period during which they returned to their previously sedentary routine. When the women’s microbiome was once again tested following this sedentary period it was revealed that the range of microbes was once again less diverse. This suggests that while cardio workouts positively affect the gut microbiome, the effects only last as long as the person remains active. This means that the best way to benefit your gut microbiome through exercise is by making regular cardiovascular exercise a regular part of your routine.
Similarly, another study* looked at the differences in gut microbiota between sedentary women and women who were physically active for at least 150 minutes per week. They found that the gut microbiomes of the more active women had a higher abundance of healthpromoting bacteria, again suggesting that regular physical activity positively benefits the gut microbiome.
The link between activity and diet
Besides any positive influence it has on the microbiome, there are more ways that walking benefits the digestive system. For starters, walking is a tried and tested way to help reduce stress, and stress is well known to negatively impact the gut, particularly in those who suffer with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In fact, reducing stress can often be a more effective treatment for IBS than any dietary changes. “There are a number of reasons why regular walking can lead to a healthier gut microbiome, not least the fact that walking reduces stress and therefore reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body,” explains nutritionist Jennifer Cullen.
“High levels of cortisol are very common due to our busy lifestyles and it is linked closely to disruptions in gut microbiota and subsequently stress-related disorders,” she adds. So, any activity that helps reduce our cortisol levels will have a positive impact on our wellbeing.
Another gut-healthy benefit of walking is that gentle exercise after a meal can aid digestion. This is a remnant of our caveman days when people would eat as and when they acquired food, often following a hunt which would have most likely seen a spike in their adrenaline and cortisol levels. Having eaten, our ancestors would then walk to a safe place to rest while the levels of adrenaline and cortisol were steadily dropping to baseline levels (this is known as homeostasis).
Today, this rest period after a meal is often described as the rest and digest state, as the digestive system works far more effectively when cortisol levels are low and we are relaxed. With many of us eating on the go or dashing off to do something before our bodies have had time to properly digest our meal these days, our cortisol and adrenaline levels are often kept high while our bodies are trying to digest our meals. In turn, this means that many of us do not allow our bodies to enter the rest and digest state, which is no doubt a factor in digestive problems.
So, it makes sense that a gentle, stressreducing walk after a meal would have nothing but a positive impact on our digestion. As if we needed more proof that physical activity is great for so many facets of our wellbeing, we now know that walking leads to a healthier gut microbiome. Simply making sure you get a few gentle walks each week is enough to reap these benefits, so all that’s left for you to decide is where you are going to go!